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Report Blames Japanese Government for Nuclear Meltdown

July 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The day Japan reintroduced nuclear power to its electrical grid, an independent commission found the Japanese government at fault for the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown last year.
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RAY SUAREZ: The Fukushima nuclear accident is often seen as a consequence of a rare natural disaster. But a tough new report from Japan concludes that the accident was manmade in more ways than one.

The traditional narrative of what went wrong in Japan in early 2011 had gone like this. After withstanding a powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant lost all power to three of its six units when a tsunami destroyed its emergency generators and cooling pumps. With those offline and severe flood damage to structures and equipment, meltdowns soon followed and seemed unavoidable. But a new report released today says otherwise.

KENZO OSHIMA, Fukushima Nuclear Accident Commission (through translator): In this report, we have concluded that the Fukushima nuclear accident is a manmade disaster. In our process of investigating the background of the accident, we found that there were organizational problems, systemic problems, and human-related problems, as well as crisis management and governance problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Produced by an independent parliamentary panel, the 641-page study blames government and industry collusion and a conformist Japanese culture for the crisis.

It specifically goes after TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima plant, and NISA, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. “There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to March 11,” the report reads. “The accident occurred because TEPCO didn’t take these measures, and NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission went along. They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place or made decisions based on their organizations’ self-interest, and not in the interest of public safety.”

The report also finds fault with the response from TEPCO, regulators, the government and the prime minister, who visited the plant the day after the tsunami. Among other questions, the report raises this key one: Did the tsunami inevitably lead to the disaster?

The report’s conclusion? “We have proved that it cannot be said there would have been no crisis without the tsunami.”

Both the findings and the report’s criticism of a conformist culture suggests there could be bigger problems with some of the 50 other reactors in Japan. Only hours before the report was issued, the Ohi reactor in western Japan came back online, the first to be restarted since last year’s disaster. Japan has been running without nuclear power since early May.

Before the Fukushima accident, nuclear comprised about 30 percent of Japan’s energy. Combined with the report, Ohi’s resumption will likely inflame those in the anti-nuclear movement in Japan. Over the last month, there have been holding weekly demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office.

For more, I am joined by Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, where he heads the school’s main research group on nuclear policy.

Professor Bunn, by taking natural disaster off the table and calling this profoundly manmade, what did the commission conclude that people did wrong?

MATTHEW BUNN, associate professor, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: Well, fundamentally, the issue wasn’t being well enough prepared for the kind of natural disaster that did occur.

Certainly, the earthquake and tsunami ultimately caused the meltdown that happened, but if they had been well enough prepared, if they had had, for example, the diesel generators protected from being flooded, if they had means of water pumping into the cores of the reactors if they lost water, if they had had a better emergency plan, these reactors might have survived.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there sufficient oversight to those plans? I mean, tsunamis often follow earthquakes, yet there was some surprise that the plants were destroyed by tsunamis.

MATTHEW BUNN: Yes, unfortunately, both the company and the regulators had known years before that there was a substantial risk of large tsunamis at this site. There had been one hundreds of years ago in this general area that was of a similar size, and yet they did nothing about it.

One of the fundamental issues that the report criticizes is, Japan was one of the few countries in the world that had its nuclear regulator as part of an organization that was also responsible for promoting nuclear energy.

So the nuclear regulator wasn’t really independent. And there were constant movements of staff from the utilities to the regulator and from the regulator back to the utilities.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the commission suggest moving those entities further apart, busting the revolving door?

MATTHEW BUNN: Absolutely.

That’s one of the fundamental recommendations that they make. And there’s been an effort to Japan to set up a fully independent regulatory body. Japan has already decided to do that. But it’s actually very difficult to fundamentally change the culture of an organization, whether an operating organization or a regulatory organization.

And, of course, the organizations that benefited from the way things were are pushing back. And so they have not yet, more than a year after the accident, managed to make this fully independent regulator a reality.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the scathing criticism of that closeness between the regulators and the industry was a critique of Japanese culture overall, saying there was too much deference to authority. And while you may be able to change a safety procedure and statute, it would seem to be pretty hard to change a culture.

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, I think the report is correct in saying that there are aspects of Japanese culture that were a problem here.

But I think they may be in a sense hitting themselves too hard, in the sense that, while there are aspects unique to Japan that probably made the collusion between the regulators and the operators worse, the reality is, all over the world — and not just in the nuclear industry, but in many industries — you have often a cozy relationship develop between regulators who get much of their information, maybe their future job opportunities and so on, from the industry they’re regulating, and the industry itself.

So figuring out how to build in a new safety culture and a new level of independence and toughness for the regulators is a hard problem, not just for Japan, but for countries all over the world. One of the things that this accident tells us is that, globally, our system for finding and fixing the safety problems is not as strong as it ought to be.

The Japanese plants and the Japanese regulators had had international reviews from the International Atomic Energy Agency, from industry bodies, and no one had raised a ruckus. No one had said, this is unacceptable, the way this is being managed. You’re not implementing this international standard and that international standard.

So it makes — made it clear that we really need a stronger system for bringing the worst performers up to the level of the best performers.

RAY SUAREZ: Before the earthquake, Japan was getting about a third of its electricity through nuclear power. Do the findings of this commission report push off the day further into the future when Japan’s plants will be up and running and operational?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, I think it will really be up to the Japanese people to decide what the future of nuclear power in Japan is going to be.

Certainly, this report highlights some of the key concerns and some of the key issues that will have to be addressed to ensure that nuclear power can be managed safely in Japan in the future. But it remains very unclear and very controversial where Japan is going to go on nuclear energy.

They were fairly dependent. They are an island, which makes it more difficult to import electricity from somewhere else. If they shifted toward heavy use of natural gas, that would have implications for climate. And it’s costly as well to import the liquefied natural gas they would have to use.

If — they could shift toward renewables, but not on the pace that would be required to replace 20 percent or 30 percent of their electricity rapidly. So, my guess is some of these plants will probably get turned back on, but 10, 20 years from now, you will probably have less reliance on nuclear energy than you have today in Japan.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Matthew Bunn. . .

MATTHEW BUNN: The other thing I would. . .

RAY SUAREZ: . . . thanks for joining us.